Attention, please Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

If the thought of giving presentations or speeches leaves you breaking out in a sweat, rest assured that you don’t have to be a natural to be an effective speaker.

“With preparation and practice, anyone can give an effective presentation,” says Heather Norton, Ph.D., associate professor of communication at Fontbonne University. “Presenting yourself well in the workplace is critical, especially because it is so difficult to build credibility, yet so easy to lose it.

Although good communication skills have always been important in the business world, Norton surmises that expectations have grown during the last few years.

“Good communication skills are one of the things employers look for most in new hires,” she says. “Quite often, people with good communication skills move up more quickly through an organization.”

Smart Business spoke with Norton for some tips and hints on getting and holding your audience’s attention.

What can be done beforehand to ensure a successful presentation?

Too many times people think ‘good’ presentations just happen, so they wing it, and then wonder what went wrong. The key is to prepare and practice beforehand, and to follow these tips:

  • Know your purpose. What message or main point do you want to get across? What is your ultimate goal?

  • Know your material. You will be much more persuasive and effective if you are familiar with the product, the research and your pitch.

  • Know your audience. Understand their level of familiarity with your topic so you can target your message effectively. You don’t want to tell them things that they already know, nor do you want to talk over their heads.

Consider the best way to convey your information to a specific audience. Do you really need to do yet another PowerPoint presentation? Can you just be clear about the points you are making, perhaps by using sign posts in your speaking?

Next, organize the material in logical ways (e.g., steps they can take). Don’t just jot down your thoughts. What information does your audience need first? Finally, do a verbal run-through of your presentation ahead of time. Practice it out loud sitting in your office or talk it through with someone not familiar with the subject matter who can tell you if there are any unclear areas.

What is the most important thing someone can do moments before a speech?

You’d probably think it was to reread your notes, but it’s not. Sit quietly, breathe deep, and smile! How can the presenter make sure he or she looks comfortable? Nonverbally, fake it. Most times no one can tell you’re nervous. Move away from the podium. Walk about, but don’t pace. Use natural and fluid hand gestures. These things will help you look confident and will also help eliminate physical jittery nervousness. Verbally, have the confidence to stop on occasion to ask questions at logical points. Let the audience believe you really want them to ask questions. Avoid using filler words, such as ‘like,’ ‘uh’ and ‘um.’ Take audible pauses. Don’t read off notes or a PowerPoint.

How can a presenter use verbal and nonverbal techniques to engage the audience?

Verbally, offer an effective attention getter. Stating a quick fact is a good way to begin — a fact that surprises them and/or establishes the importance of the topic will let your audience know that the presentation is worth listening to. The fact should be related to the topic — don’t just come in and flip the lights off! People don’t ‘come in late well’ to speeches. You have to get their attention from the beginning. Be careful with humor. Don’t start with a joke unless you really know your audience well, and you really are funny. Use a clear tone of voice and a volume that is appropriate. Women tend to speak more softly than men. Audiences tend to tune out people who speak too softly.

Nonverbally, the most important thing you can do is make eye contact. Don’t look over their heads. You don’t have to look at every person but look at segments of the audience. This will convey that you care whether they are ‘getting it.’ And if you are paying attention to them, it makes them pay attention to you.

What’s a good way to end a presentation?

First, signal that you are moving to the end, and then proceed. Don’t go on for 10 more minutes. Next, remind the audience of the main points covered. End with a memorable statement or leave them with something to consider. If it is a persuasive presentation, provide a call to action. In business, many times you want the audience to do something (e.g. ‘take these three steps’). Tell them what you want them to do. Be specific.

HEATHER NORTON, Ph.D., is an associate professor of communication at Fontbonne University. Reach her at or (314) 719-3641.